The morning air in Udaipur is crisp and clean, and I breathe it deep after Mumbai’s smoggy haze. The sun, newly risen, glows pink in a cold blue sky, and I snuggle into the warmth of my hoodie in the back of a rickshaw, peering out at the bustle of morning life in India as we jolt through the narrow streets. Lethargic cows amble through streets lined with shops selling silk and leather and silver. Rickshaw drivers drink chai from tiny paper cups by the roadside, small laughing boys on motorbikes zip past us and women shrouded in turquoise and gold sell garlands of saffron flowers at the foot of the temple steps. A man rounds the corner ahead of us, barefoot but wearing an oversized woollen jumper, herding a line of donkeys through the traffic.
I sit on the roof of my hotel, the steam from my mug of tea wreathing my face in the cold light as I munch my way through a stack of hot buttered toast. Below me, crows swoop over the neighbouring whitewashed rooftops, strung with washing and dotted with the figures of playing children, stacked like dominoes down to the banks of Lake Pichola. The lake at the heart of Udaipur shimmers with captured sunlight, blue and gold, ringed by distant purple mountains. Later that day, I sit on a pile of richly embroidered cushions and watch the sun dip below those same mountains, flooding the cream city with a wash of rosewater pink.
I visit the palace, and wander through the elaborate arches and silent courtyards, gardens and fountains set against the backdrop of its buttercream walls. Heading towards the exit, I see a crowd gathered around a set of huge, heavy oak doors and wander over to investigate. A tall man in white silk kurta and a saffron turban walks out down a red carpet and gets into a waiting golf buggy, his wife in a glittering sari beside him. Cameras flash and the crowd presses closer as he drives off, and a girl standing nearby turns to me.
‘You just saw the king’ she said.
The next day, I walk around an ancient haveli by the lakeside, it’s walls covered with the richly coloured miniature paintings that Udaipur is famous for. A man sits inside a tiny annex by the entrance, and paints my thumbnail with a tiny peacock in jade and azure and gold. I wander through the rooms of glittering mirrors and small shuttered windows, and imagine what it would have been like to be a woman living here, shielded from the eyes of all but her family, imprisoned by riches and private courtyards.
I am woken on the morning of my last day in Udaipur by the sound of falling rain on rooftops, the first rain I have seen in weeks. It bounces off the surface of the lake and runs in rivulets down the streets; cleansing the city. I open my window and lean out, letting the drops fall onto my upturned face, the sudden deluge a welcome precursor to my onwards journey through the deserts of Rajasthan. Finally the sun breaks through the clouds, reflecting from the puddles in shards of golden light, and I leave, reluctantly, on a bus bound for Jodhpur.